‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Is About How Hollywood Failed To Replace Tom Cruise

Skydance and Paramount’s blockbuster should crack $600 million worldwide today.

Skydance and Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick earned another $12.6 million on Monday, dropping just 56% from Sunday and 63% from its previous Monday (which was Memorial Day). Comparatively, Walt Disney’s Aladdin (which is the earlier high-mile benchmark for super-leggy Memorial Day weekend mega-openers) earned $4.7 million on day 11 dropping 66% from its second Sunday and 81% from its first Monday. So, yes, the Tom Cruise-starring legacy sequel sped past $300 million domestic, $308 million to be exact, which likely puts it global total (it had $296 million domestic and $557 million worldwide as of Sunday) at around $580 million. So, yes, if the math holds, it’ll pass $600 million worldwide sometime this evening. It will pass War of the Worlds ($606 million in 2005) today or tomorrow to become Cruise’s third-biggest grosser behind the last three ($694 in 2011, $683 million in 2015 and $792 million in 2018) Mission: Impossible movies.

At this point, it’s less a matter of whether the Joseph Kosinski-directed action drama becomes Tom Cruise’s biggest global grosser or even if it sells more tickets in North America than the first Top Gun ($176 million in 1986, $180 million counting reissues and around $440 million adjusted-for-inflation) but rather whether it hits $500 million domestic and crosses $1 billion worldwide. $1 billion worldwide would require, presuming a continued 53/47 domestic/overseas split, around $530 million, right between (sans inflation) Rogue One and The Dark Knight. With Russia and China presumably off the table, the last major untapped territory is South Korea on June 22. The last three Mission: Impossible movies all earned $41-$51 million in Korea, so I’d imagine Maverick is good for at least that much. Such a result means maybe a domestic cume closer to $500 million could be enough but ask me again next weekend.

The legacy sequel is a parable for how Hollywood has failed to create new movie stars.

Tom Cruise became a movie star thanks to non-tentpole flicks like Risky Business, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, The Firm and Jerry Maguire. Top Gun notwithstanding, and that’s as much a sports melodrama like Days of Thunder as it is an action movie, Cruise was known for headlining dramas, comedies and thrillers. It was a huge deal when he played Lestat in Interview with the Vampire in 1994, or when he headlined a big-budget Mission: Impossible adaptation in 1996. Yes, he slowly (starting with Mission: Impossible II in 2000) became an action hero. This became his near-permanent status after his “I gotta prove I’m still a movie star” reaction to the PR meltdown while promoting War of the Worlds in 2005 (he didn’t jump on Oprah Winfrey’s couch, and he was merely playing to the studio audience). However, Cruise became an icon from 1983 to 2005 despite, not because, of his occasional action movies.

I’ve been ranting for a decade about how Hollywood tends to declare every vaguely talented handsome white guy the “next Tom Cruise.” Think, offhand, Jai Courtney, Garret Hedlund, Taylor Kitsch, Charlie Hunnam, Armie Hammer, Ansel Elgort, Tye Sheridan, Brendan Thwaites, Sam Claflin, Miles Teller and Glen Powell. Hollywood took these young men (most of whom were white) and cast them in variations on Legend (one of Cruise’s only flops) like Prince of Persia, Battleship, The Lone Ranger, Fantastic Four, King Arthur and Snake Eyes. The last 15 years of would-be movie stars have had fewer opportunities at the mainstream theatrical level to make films like The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July or Cocktail. We haven’t had a new “can open a movie” movie star (outside of comedies) since maybe Hugh Jackman in the early 2000s. Audiences now prefer marquee characters over actors. Chris Hemsworth *as* Thor >>> Hemsworth in anything else.

Top Gun: Maverick is about how Tom Cruise is forced to lead because the next generation can’t win.

I was put off in my initial viewing by the third act whereby Maverick goes from the teacher to a group of young next-generation pilots to the team leader. It plays textually as a cross between School of Rock (I never liked that Jack Black became the kids’ lead singer during the final musical sequence) and Rise of Skywalker (whereby the journeys of the new characters are circumvented or defined by original trilogy Star Wars characters). What improved for me upon my second viewing, my cranky nitpicks aside, is how it worked best not as a straightforward legacy sequel or even a thoughtful recontextualization of the original Top Gun (which I was likely naive to expect even after American Made) but as a metaphor for how Hollywood has so miserably failed in their decades-long quest to produce “the next Tom Cruise” that it’s still up to Cruise himself to save the day.

The film presents Pete “Maverick” Mitchell as the last of a dying breed as technology and reliance on unnamed drones threaten to make his kind obsolete. He continues to make his living as a test pilot because he feels that’s where he belongs and that’s where he excels. Moreover, as befits a guy who even in the first Top Gun only broke the rules for the sake of the mission or his fellow pilots, he presses on because he knows what will happen to his colleagues if he walks away. Even attempts to mentor and train a new generation of Top Gun champions for the sake of an important and dangerous mission goes awry because, to a certain extent, they aren’t Maverick. So, as act two ends, he takes to the skies even at the risk of court-martial, to show this new generation how to do the job and ends up leading them into battle.

In Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise saves Hollywood from itself.

The star-driven, real-world action drama plays as a subtextual validation for Tom Cruise as one of the last movie stars. The last few Mission: Impossible films recontextualized Ethan Hunt as a semi-autobiographical figure who suffered and pressed on fighting the good fight the right way (“zero body count”) for our safety even as it cost him anything resembling a normal life. They were more deconstructive, with Hunt wondering if the price he paid, and the relationships he damaged (including his brief marriage between Mission: Impossible III and Ghost Protocol) were worth it even as he faced disbelief from his supervisors nearly every step of the way. Top Gun: Maverick is a celebration of Tom Cruise as a movie star in a story that places him alongside and then ahead of the very sort of “next movie star” actors who failed (often through little fault of their own) to carry on his torch.

Because Hollywood became obsessed with IP and failed to nurture the next batch of stars, the likes of Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts and Will Smith are still expected to remain as bankable now as they were 25 years ago. Most of the remaining living legends (even Leonardo DiCaprio) are heading to streaming films or prestige/streaming miniseries. In this world where star power only matters theatrically when that movie star is playing a marquee character (Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, Tom Hardy as Venom, etc.), Tom Cruise now stands alone unwilling to accept that “promotion” and instead stays where he is. He still only produces huge movies intended to be shown on huge screens. The film morphs into a saga of a guy who knows he’s the only thing standing between himself and a darker (drones = IP-centric franchises) future which will doom that next generation to metaphorical death or irrelevancy.

Where does Tom Cruise go from here?

If Top Gun: Maverick is the climax to Tom Cruise’s 15 years of being only an action star, with the last two Mission: Impossible movies as an epilogue, I can only hope what happens next for Cruise is a return to the kind of movies, even in supporting roles, that made initially him a star. Now that he’s proven that he’s still one of the last big-deal movie stars, he can go back to reminding us of how damn good he used to be as a dramatic actor. Top Gun: Maverick may yet indirectly “save” (or at least help) movie theaters by drawing older and infrequent moviegoers back into the multiplexes and reacquainting those viewers with the inherent pleasures of a high-quality cinematic experience. With that job done, or at least with Cruise realizing that he can do no more to save Hollywood from itself, he can concentrate on finally winning that damn Oscar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.